100 Kilometers in 4 Adventurous Days

Embarking on the Remarkable Journey from Le-Puy-en-Velay to Aumont-Aubrac

We did it! What an amazing experience, but believe me, this route is reserved for seasoned and exceptionally fit travellers. The concept: “after every downhill, there will be an uphill,” takes on a vivid meaning along the Chemin Le-Puy, also known as GR 65, or for modern-day pilgrims, the Via Podiensis in France.

The trail is impressively marked with the characteristic white and red bands, symbolizing the extensive French long-distance hiking routes known as the Grande Randonnées. Therefore, unlike the Camino de Santiago, where pilgrims uniformly move in one direction, on the Via Podiensis, you might encounter fellow hikers coming towards you at times.

This journey commences amidst the volcanic splendour of the Velay mountains, traverses the serene expanse of the Aubrac Plateau, meanders through the picturesque Lot river valley, and skirts the enchanting brandy vineyards of Armagnac, concluding in the captivating Basque region of the Pyrenees, where the Camino Francés embarks. I refer to this unique pilgrimage as the “Two Beginnings Camino”: the first 100 kilometres of the Podiensis followed by the initial 100 kilometres of the Camino Francés, commencing from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and in our case, ending in Pamplona. I’ll save more about that part of our journey for my upcoming post.

Much like the renowned Camino Francés in Spain, numerous segments of the Chemin are honoured with UNESCO World Heritage recognition, acknowledging their pivotal role in facilitating religious and cultural exchange during the later Middle Ages. Notably, the most formidable stretch of this route appears to be the initial ten days, characterized by the most challenging ascents and descents. Indeed, I can attest to this first-hand!”

Much like the renowned Camino Francés, the Via Podiensis has its roots deeply embedded in medieval texts. The earliest documented pilgrimage to Santiago from regions beyond the Pyrenees can be traced back to Bishop Godescalc of Le Puy-en-Velay, who embarked on this spiritual journey in the years 950-951 AD. However, the idea that Le Puy would become the starting point for pilgrims en route to Santiago primarily emerged during the 20th century. This transformation was greatly facilitated by the establishment of a long-distance hiking route in the 1970s, known as the GR®65. This modern-day trail faithfully recreated the historical pilgrim’s route from Le Puy to the Spanish border.

Our Journey started on the 22nd of September 2023. We started the journey appropriately attending the 07:00 am pilgrims mass, a truly wonderful experience! and when our group of eight intrepid travellers commenced our pilgrimage adventure with a challenging uphill climb out of Le-Puy-En-Velay. And yes, the higher you ascend, the more breathtaking the views become. Le-Puy boasts a collection of remarkable monuments that tower above the picturesque cityscape, thanks to the region’s volcanic geological features. Within a few kilometres, you have the most spectacular views over the city!

Day one of our journey took us from Le-Puy to Saint Privat D’Alier, covering a lengthy yet exhilarating distance of 24 kilometres. Our first break only came after a demanding 10 kilometres at the Eglise Saint-Christophe-sur-Dolaizon church. In this quaint village, we encountered a public toilet and only one bar, where the bartender raised his eyebrow at our request for coffee. At 11:00 am all his other customers were having a mid-morning beer or glass of wine! It quickly became evident that coffee stops along the way were not as abundant as those found on the Camino routes. Thus, Tip number one: Bring a coffee flask and some zip-lock bags to pack your own mid-way snacks. Breakfast in France is usually a croissant, crepes, sometimes cheese, yoghurt and apple mouse. So if you need protein, do stock up at the local café.

The final 2 kilometres presented a steep downhill descent on treacherously loose gravel. Tip number two: Bring two hiking poles! Walking the Chemin Le-Puy without these essential companions would be a dangerous challenge.

Saint Privat D’Allier, a charming little town, offered limited dinner options. Pizzas, baguettes, cheese, and ham from the local café on the corner, is the go-to here. We opted for the latter and had a fun “hotel room picnic”. This leads us to Tip number three: Bring a corkscrew from home – wine is readily available in France, but screwtops are nowhere to be found!

Day two, as we were warned, proved to be quite the challenge. Normally a 20-kilometer stretch may not seem daunting, but we soon discovered that appearances can be deceiving. Our journey from the previous day’s descent continued for about 2.5 kilometres before we reached a brief plateau, offering a “breath catch” moment. Then comes a formidable ascent that stretches over a relentless 8 kilometres. This uphill climb soared 800 meters in total elevation. Some advice: Begin your day quite early, and take it slow. Ensure you have an ample supply of water and snacks with you. What’s intriguing about this route is the “WC’s” (toilets) along the way. Every so often, you’ll encounter a wooden shack marked with a WC sign. Surprisingly, these “dry toilets” are environmentally friendly, quite clean and actually odour-free.

The next two days continue to pose challenges in terms of refreshment stops; they are few and far between, almost non-existent. Therefore, Tip number 4: Stock up on refreshments for your hike the day before. Bringing snacks from South Africa is not advisable, as the luggage transfer limit is set at 13 kilograms per day, making it impossible to transport loads of snacks with you. But all the villages have ‘supermarchés’ so buying fresh fruit, baguettes, cheese etc. is very easy.

We concluded the first part of our “Two Beginnings Camino” in Aumont-Aubrac, a stunning town that stands out as a highlight along the route. However, our journey did not end without a minor hiccup. We received notice the day prior that our train for the following day had been cancelled due to strikes – a typical occurrence here in France. So, I mustered my best French to explain my predicament to the lovely and friendly lady at the tourism office. She reassured me, saying, “This is quite usual for us. But do not worry, a bus will come to pick you up. The timing has changed slightly, but you will not be left behind!” And indeed, the bus arrived! Hence, here’s Tip number 5: Don’t stress about train cancellations in France. It’s rather common and you won’t find yourself stranded.

In summary, the first 100 kilometres of the Via Podiensis were marked by challenging terrain, but the exquisite French countryside more than compensated for the difficulties. Croissants, baguettes, cheese, wine – the French cuisine and lifestyle are truly captivating. It was a delightful experience. Now, on to Spain and my beloved Camino Francés!

 

 

September is Camino High Season!

Welcome to the bustling High Camino Season in September!

At this time of year, we at ‘Stap die Camino’ are abuzz with activity, assisting twelve groups along various picturesque routes, each day witnessing the departure of more enthusiastic pilgrims. The charming city of Santiago de Compostela has become a daily destination for a remarkable number of pilgrims. On this beautiful day, September 17, 2023, an impressive 2108 pilgrims were elated to receive their coveted Compostela at the Pilgrim’s Reception Office, which is expertly managed by the Cathedral of Santiago.

In the Archdiocese of Santiago de Compostela, this office serves as the destination to obtain the cherished final stamp on your ‘credenciales de peregrino’ (pilgrim’s credentials). It’s also where you will be presented with the traditional pilgrimage certificate known as the ‘Compostela.’

Before embarking on your remarkable Camino journey, we recommend taking a moment to acquaint yourself with the process of receiving your well-earned Compostela. You can find more information on the official website of the Pilgrim’s Office: https://oficinadelperegrino.com/en/

With over 2000 pilgrims eager to collect their Compostelas on any given day, the process can be quite overwhelming! To streamline your experience, we encourage you to pre-register online, a step that will save you valuable time.

Upon your arrival in Santiago de Compostela, make your way to the Pilgrim’s Office, conveniently located at Rúa das Carretas, 33. Request your turn, then patiently await your moment to approach the counter with your Credential in hand, finally receiving your well-deserved Compostela!”

I’m eagerly setting off on Tuesday, September 19th, for a highly anticipated adventure to discover the Via Podiensis in France. I’ll be joined by seven fellow pilgrims as we embark on our journey, commencing our pilgrimage in the picturesque town of Le-Puy-En-Velay. Our path will lead us towards Spain, eventually connecting with the renowned Camino Francés in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.”

Simultaneously, Erns Grunling is making his way to Santiago along the scenic Camino Portuguese, accompanied by nine fellow pilgrims. Another spirited group of ten enthusiastic pilgrims, known as the ‘Sun Catcher’, is embarking on the unique journey of the Camino Finisterre in reverse, commencing their pilgrimage in Muxia with the aim of arriving in Santiago on October 3rd!

So watch this space. Many exciting stories, testimonies, pictures and tips will follow soon.

Buen Camino everyone!

The Via Podiensis

The Via Podiensis, also known as Chemin le Puy or the Le Puy Route, represents one of the foremost popular pilgrimage routes in France, offering an unforgettable journey through the picturesque landscapes en-route to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwest Spain.

The origins of this esteemed pilgrimage can be traced back to the year 950 or 951 when Godescalc, the bishop of Le Puy-en-Velay, embarked on a momentous pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. As the first non-Hispanic to undertake this sacred journey, Godescalc led a large entourage comprising clergymen, their attendants and servants, as well as distinguished nobles and gentlemen.

Today, the tradition of this pilgrimage on the Le Puy Route endures, commencing in the beautiful Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy in Le Puy-en-Velay. Pilgrims have the opportunity to receive blessings each morning before embarking on their expedition to Santiago de Compostela. Many consider this starting point as the "true beginning" of the Camino Francés, and the French leg of the pilgrimage concludes approximately 750 kilometres further at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, just prior to crossing the Pyrenees and entering Spain.

The Le Puy Route offers an awe-inspiring experience, boasting breathtaking views of volcanic landscapes and captivating countryside. Nature enthusiasts, in particular, will appreciate the route's remarkable scenery, as it is renowned for its diverse and captivating natural wonders.

Secondly, the more widely recognized starting point of the Camino Francés is situated in St Jean Pied de Port, France. This route traverses the majestic Pyrenees and extends across northern Spain, spanning nearly 800 kilometres before reaching the sacred destination and Km Nil in Santiago de Compostela. Given the substantial distance involved, many pilgrims prefer to undertake this journey in stages, allowing for a more manageable time and pace.

Join our Group Journey

I invite you to join us on the extraordinary Camino journey, aptly named "The Two Beginnings." Embark on the Via Podiensis as well as the Camino Francés, and embrace the enriching adventure that awaits me and fellow pilgrim Marina Loubser. We will traverse remarkable landscapes, connect with fellow pilgrims, and forge a profound connection with history and spirituality.

Day Date Route Km
1 19/09 Depart South Africa. 0
2 20/09 Arrive Madrid. Transfer to Le-Puy-en-Velay 0
3 21/09 Le-Puy-en-Velay free day 0
4 22/09 Le-Puy-en-Velay - Saint-Privat-d'Allier 24
5 23/09 Saint-Privat-d'Allier - Saugues 20
6 24/09 Saugues - Les Faux 28
7 25/09 Les Faux – Peyre-en-Aubrac 24
8 26/09 Transfer to Toulouse 0
9 27/09 Transfer to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port 0 / 18
10 28/09 Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port - Orisson 10
11 29/09 Orisson - Roncesvalles 14
12 30/09 Roncesvalles - Zubiri 22
13 01/09 Zubiri - Pamplona 20
14 02/09 Free day Pamplona 0
15 03/09 Train to Madrid - Madrid free day & Flamenco show 0
16 04/09 Depart at 23:30 (still full day in Madrid) 0
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Le Puy en Velay

As the starting point for the Le Puy Camino in France, this small city has much to offer.  Two unique sites are the Cathedral and Hermitage that are perched atop ancient volcanoes and only accessible by climbing the many steps up.  The Cathedral of Notre Dame, dates from the 12th Century and is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most distinctive Romanesque cathedrals in France. Be sure to also save some energy to wander the small streets flanked by tall pastel buildings of the old city.  Here you will find many shops and cafes as well as the famed lace makers of Le Puy.

Sauges

Sauges has served as a popular stopping point on the Le Puy Camino for many centuries, situated between the mountains of Margeride and the Allier Valley.  Although a small town there is much to see and do here.  From visiting the Fantastic Museum of the Beast of Gevaudan to the Romanesque Church of St Ménard and the Tower of the English that dates from Medieval times all within a short walk of each other. Whilst here take the opportunity also to try the traditional dish of Aligot – mashed potato mixed with butter, garlic cream and the local cheese Tomme.

Aumont-Aubrac

Aumont-Aubrac was built around the crossroads of the ancient routes between Lyon – Toulouse and Auvergne. Relax in this typical French town, wander the old streets and come across its Statue of the Beast of Gevaudan above the fountain, or visit the Tourist Information Centre situated in the House of the Priory that was restored in the ’90s has a beautiful vaulted cellar in the basement.  A must-visit also for pilgrims is the Church of Saint-Etienne which sits on the site of a priory from 106. Over the centuries it has undergone many restorations and today you can see clearly the Romanesque and Baroque influences. A peculiarity of the church is its eccentric belfry rebuilt in 1839 with stones from the cemetery. Inside you can witness the glimmers of coloured light from the 12 stained glass windows.